Under the guilty pleas to first-degree intentional homicide, Schaffhausen faces a sentence of life in prison for each death. If he convinces a jury that he was insane, he would be sent to a mental institution.
Next week’s trial is likely to contain a flurry of mental health research and conclusions. Experts for the defense, the prosecution and the court have each examined the defendant.
To win an insanity claim, defense attorneys will specifically need to prove that Schaffhausen had a mental disease or defect at the time of the crimes and that because of that, he lacked “substantial capacity” either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law.
Although the defense has to prove insanity by a preponderance of evidence, not the more difficult standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, Wisconsin legal experts said it’s a difficult claim to win.
Prosecutors, who had more than 100 people on their witness list, are still likely to introduce a great deal of evidence about the actual crimes, trying to show that Schaffhausen planned them and then tried to cover them up.
They will likely highlight the deliberate steps Schaffhausen is accused of taking — getting a knife, cutting each daughter’s throat, tucking them into bed and calling his ex-wife — to show that he wasn’t acting impulsively and knew that what he was doing was wrong, said Daniel Blinka, Marquette University law professor.
The defense is likely to argue: “Look at what happened here. How can this guy not be nuts?” Blinka said.
Though experts help a jury make sense of mental illness, “we tell the jury that they’re not bound by medical labels,” Blinka said. “It’s a community standard, really, as to what is a mental disease or defect.”
While the public is quick to say someone who committed horrendous crimes has to be mentally ill, University of Wisconsin law Prof. Keith Findley said it comes down to a jury determining whether a defendant just couldn’t comprehend that what he was doing was wrong, or if he did understand it was wrong, he lacked the ability to control himself.
“It’s hard to satisfy juries to absolve somebody of responsibility when they’ve done something wrong and something serious,” Findley said. “But it does happen and it’s there for a reason, because the law has made a judgment that we don’t want to punish people for being sick.”
Nothing but sadness
If, after the insanity trial, 10 out of 12 jurors agree that Aaron Schaffhausen was mentally ill and not responsible for the crimes, he would be committed to a mental institution, attorneys said.
Kucinski said after Thursday’s hearing that his client “would like to end up in a mental health institute so he can understand how this could have ever happened to him and his girls.”
In questioning his decision to plead Thursday, Aaron Schaffhausen was asked in court whether he was receiving mental health treatment in jail, where he is on suicide watch.
Schaffhausen responded: “I would like to have treatment, but it would have been used by the prosecution so I chose not to, under the advice of my attorney.”
Prosecutor Gary Freyberg said after the hearing that Schaffhausen has refused to speak to jail authorities on the advice of his attorney, so jail officials are compelled to keep him separate from other inmates and on suicide watch.
Kucinski said his client “has a lot of remorse. He’s depressed. He’s been depressed for a long time.”